Faux pas at pho place

by Brian Clarey

You’re supposed to add raw vegetables and cold noodles to the red curry, not the other way around. (photo by Brian Clarey)

If you regularly follow my food writing, you’ll notice that I have been dwelling on Southeast Asian cuisine, specifically the salubrious noodle dish known as pho, since the weather turned in November.

Pho — spicy and steaming hot, loaded with fresh herbs and vegetables — is what I call “Indochine penicillin,” a cure for the common cold or, at least, tasty enough to make you forget you have one. And it is a perfect dish for cold weather regardless of your symptoms.

Most of the places where I eat pho are located in new strip malls, non-descript façades tucked away from main thoroughfares, filled with Thais, Vietnamese, Cambodians and the like, for whom cuisine like this is a type of soul food.

But Soup’s Place in downtown Winston-Salem, where I ventured with a companion on a busy weekend evening, takes it upscale.

It’s located on the interesting part of 4th Street, for one, making it a part of a nightlife network that extends all the way down to Foothills, close enough to the action to be its own billboard, open to foot traffic and impulse diners.

And it’s swanky inside, with a tasteful, minimalist esthetic that allows for a transition from restaurant to nightclub when the dinner crowd thins. To that end, they have a good selection of beer, a great selection of sake and full ABC permits. Also: Karaoke on Thursday nights, with DJs and dancing on the weekends.

Life after dark isn’t the only thing that sets Soup’s apart from the other noodle joints. Most pho places I frequent have huge menus featuring dozens of variations on the noodles-in-spicy-broth theme, scads of hard-to-pronounce delicacies with exotic ingredients, lists of strange soft drinks that honest servers will tell you that you probably won’t like. Soup’s keeps it simple, with a relatively short menu — for a pho restaurant, that is — of tried and true standards and house specialties with enough variety to keep lovers of the cuisine happy and neophytes interested.

Because I have been eating so much pho lately, I went with Vietnamese red curry, a spicy and rich broth made with coconut milk. My companion, something of a spicy number herself, went with a vegetarian variation of traditional pho. As we waited we drank an excellent bottle of reasonably priced, unfiltered sake with notes of melon and pineapple.

The food came out fairly quickly, and my date, after adding fresh Thai basil, sliced jalapeño and some beautiful bean sprouts to the broth, raved about its flavor and nutrient density.

The red curry is about as old-school a dish as you can get, thicker than the watery pho broth and more savory, it’s made from red chilis, coriander, cumin, shrimp paste, lemongrass and garlic, among other ingredients, and can be paired with meat (duck is particularly delicious) or tofu or rice.

Mine came with a side bowl of noodles, shredded lettuce and more of those fabulous sprouts. And here is where I made my food faux pas. Instead of spooning additives into the curry broth, I thought it would be better to dump the curry atop the bowl of ingredients. I don’t know why I thought this, but it’s possible the Nigiri sake had something to do with it.

The upshot was that my red curry lost much of its temperature, and cooled off rapidly as I ate it. It was delicious nonetheless, but I’m looking forward to going back and eating the dish as it was intended to be.

And maybe — maybe — sing a little karaoke.

wanna go?

Soup’s Place 271 W. 4th St. Winston-Salem